ThankBookFor: It's Not Them, It's You

Hello, it’s me again. I say again, it’s been so long since I’ve posted a blog, perhaps I should introduce myself anew. I’m Tom Bissell and this thing right here, this is a ThankBookFor blog post. I’ve very recently taken on a weekly radio show, in case I haven’t mentioned it to you yet, and time has been very much at a premium. However, the following events and thoughts occurred, and so I thought to myself ‘Tom, blog that shit’. And so here we are.

I’m reading Cloud Atlas at the moment by David Mitchell. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t really be blog post worthy, but this time it is. I started the book just after it was released, back in 2005, and though I found the premise intriguing, I was too impatient to get to the futuristic stories, so I gave up. After about 3 pages.

To provide some context, I’d just started working full time in libraries and was requesting every book under the sun that I’d ever wanted to read. As such my mindset was slowly changing from ‘if I’ve started it, I’ll finish it’ to ‘if the author hasn’t grabbed me in a couple of chapters, I’m out of here’. It’s a principle I adhere to to this day, as there’s just too many books out there to persevere with something you’re not enjoying. That does, however, mean you can let something pass you by that you really would have enjoyed.

For example, there’s an absolutely amazing fantasy book called The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s one of the best fantasy books ever written, and it’s not just me saying that, it’s practically everyone I’ve ever come across who has read it. I gave up on it after a couple of chapters. I couldn’t get into it, it starts off with ‘our hero’ wiping tables in a tavern, being encouraged to tell his story. (as I remember it, anyway) Luckily, a former colleague of mine mentioned that he’d read it and I asked him what he’d thought. He told me it was one of the best fantasy books he’d read, and upon hearing my experience, urged me to try it again. Which I did. Much to my everlasting relief.

I firmly believe that sometimes a book will come along at just the right time, and you’ll be more receptive to what it’s trying to say. I don’t mean it in a Meta, this is your destiny, kind of way, just that, like with television programmes, sometimes you’re just not in the mood for something. Which is what prompted me to write this blog post.

I’d argue that, as a rule, we don’t tend to treat books in the same way we do other mediums. Many a time I’ve started a television programme, decided I didn’t want to watch that content at that time, and then gone back to it at a later date. And enjoyed it. Same with films, music, food... But not, generally, books. Books seem to be a ‘tried it, didn’t like, moving on’ kind of thing.

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. It’s no exaggeration to say that that book changed my life. I absolutely loved it. The main protagonist, Veronika, tries to kill herself and fails. But in doing so, she irreparably damages her heart and has only weeks to live. Wading fast into personal territory here, I used to smoke a lot of weed, and I got my head a bit messed up. VDTD helped me get myself back straight and reminded me that we’re all human beings and we all struggle with things. It helped to ground me back in reality, and helped me get some confidence back.

I read The Alchemist a couple of months afterwards, generally regarded as Coelho’s finest work. I found it to be quite twee, almost childlike. Much like Veronika, it’s a book written with a positive message at its heart, but unlike Veronika, it doesn’t pull you in and grab you. It doesn’t leave you feeling exhilarated about just being alive, and aware of what an amazing thing that is. Or at least, it didn’t for me. And yet for millions of others, it clearly did.

I recently shared a phone-line with Beth Lewis, author of the wonderful The Wolf Road. I was speaking to her for a feature on my radio show (promote, promote, promote), and we got to talking about her favourite book.

When she said Cloud Atlas, and I confessed I hadn’t finished reading it, she urged me to go back and do so. In response to something we’d been chatting about a few minutes previous, I told I’d make a deal with her; I’d read Cloud Atlas if she would read I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (I wrote a comparative piece between the book and the film of I Am Legend).

And so, we arrive at this blog post. Cloud Atlas is a wonderful book. I haven’t quite finished it yet, I’ve around 50 pages left, but it’s been superb. I’m embarrassed that younger me gave up so easily, and pleased that older me was fortuitous enough to encounter Beth and happen to speak to her about her favourite book. And that’s what I mean about books finding you at the right time.

It’d be easy to take this philosophical approach and try to argue that I’m implying that no book is bad, it’s only ever about the timing. But that’s not what I mean. There are plenty of bad books out there, Dan Brown’s catalogue and anything mentioning Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan in a positive light, to name but a few. But I think it’s important to remember where you are in your life at the time too. For all that books, and art in general, is about escapism, you can only ever enter those worlds, escape, as yourself, and you bring baggage with you.

Have you ever given up on a book that others have loved because you didn’t get it, or couldn’t get on with a certain aspect of the narrative? Are you one of those people that read the classics in school and hated them, then picked one up in later years and loved it? It happens.

So basically, this isn’t just pontificating, I’m interested in conducting an experiment. I want to hear from you about what books you’ve given up on, and why. Then I’m going to tweet about it, and see if we can find someone who did read it and see if they can convince you to give it another try.

After all, it might not be the book that wasn’t right, it might be you.

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